In India, we look to add flavor to food using spices and cooking techniques, not stock. So instead of weighing risotto down with chicken broth, I instead fry herbs in butter and oil to make a tarka, a seasoned oil stirred into food to brighten its flavor. But I like a good stock, too, and I make mine with every scrap of vegetable when I cook, meaning that the carrot peelings, mushroom stems, and asparagus ends become stock for the risotto, introducing depth, nutrition, and interest beyond what plain water can bring. Making water-based scrap stocks also helps control the sodium levels of your foods (read the nutrition label on that can of chicken broth and be prepared for a shock when you get to the percent of sodium that one serving of the packaged broth adds to your daily intake). A Parmigiano-Reggiano rind or a few whole black peppercorns add a nice extra flavor.
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For the tarka
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
For the risotto
- 2 pounds asparagus
- 1 Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional), plus 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper (optional), plus 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- One 10-ounce bag fresh or frozen green peas
- Finely chopped fresh basil, for serving
For the tarka
Melt the butter in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil, basil, rosemary, thyme, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture is fragrant, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and set aside.
For the risotto
Snap off the tough ends of the asparagus and add them to a large soup pot. Slice the trimmed asparagus spears on the diagonal into 1-inch lengths, leave the tips whole, and place both in a medium bowl and set aside.
Pour 12 cups water over the asparagus ends and add 1 teaspoon of the salt and the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (if using), and the coarsely ground pepper (if using). Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and gently simmer until the broth is fragrant, about 25 minutes. Strain the broth into a clean pot, cover to keep the broth warm, and discard the asparagus ends and the rind. (The broth can be made up to a week in advance; reheat before making the risotto.) You should have about 10 cups of broth.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the freshly ground pepper and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent and soft, 1 1/2-2 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring often, until the grains are opaque, 1 ½-2 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring often, until it is absorbed, 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add 1 cup of the broth. Cook the risotto, stirring constantly, until the liquid is mostly absorbed (when you push a wooden spoon through the center of the pot, a trail should remain for 1 second before the rice comes back together), and then add another 1 cup of warm broth. The rice will probably need about 2 minutes of cooking and stirring between each addition.
Once you have added 5 cups broth total to the risotto (after about 10 minutes), add the sliced asparagus, asparagus tips, peas, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. You know the risotto is done when the rice is creamy, not mushy, the grains are plump yet separate, and the rice is cooked to an al dente doneness (there should be an opaque speck in the center of a grain of rice), after another 3 to 5 additions of broth and 8-10 more minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the tarka and 2 tablespoons of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, stirring to combine. Spoon the risotto into serving bowls, shower with some fresh basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve.